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Tuesday 22 October 2019

Miller: Not just man ray's muse

LEE MILLER IN ADOLF HITLER'S BATHTUB MUNICH 1945 PICTURE BY FELLOW LIFE PHOTOGRAPHER DAVID E. SHERMAN
LEE MILLER IN ADOLF HITLER'S BATHTUB MUNICH 1945 PICTURE BY FELLOW LIFE PHOTOGRAPHER DAVID E. SHERMAN
Man Ray's real name was Emmanuel Radnitzky, and he was born into a Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn.

Julia Molony

Model Lee Miller tracked photographer and artist Man Ray down in Paris, writes Julia Molony, and started a four-year professional and personal relationship that left him suicidal and launched her on a glittering career

Liz Taylor and Richard Burton may have set the blueprint for combustive creative romances. But long before them, blazing a trail for true bohemia in the early 20th century, came modernist photographers Man Ray and Lee Miller. As artist and model, they created some of the most iconic images of their time. As lovers, they plunged into an emotional maelstrom, defined by passion, jealousy and professional competitiveness. When the relationship ended, as ardour of such intensity inevitably does, Ray was left suicidal, closed off from the world, the degree of his obsession with his lost love expressed via an outpouring of creative activity, in which the spurned Ray hacked up his photographs of Miller, creating artworks from her dismembered image.

Liz Taylor and Richard Burton may have set the blueprint for combustive creative romances. But long before them, blazing a trail for true bohemia in the early 20th century, came modernist photographers Man Ray and Lee Miller. As artist and model, they created some of the most iconic images of their time. As lovers, they plunged into an emotional maelstrom, defined by passion, jealousy and professional competitiveness. When the relationship ended, as ardour of such intensity inevitably does, Ray was left suicidal, closed off from the world, the degree of his obsession with his lost love expressed via an outpouring of creative activity, in which the spurned Ray hacked up his photographs of Miller, creating artworks from her dismembered image.

The pair met in Paris in 1929. Montparnasse was, at that time, the centre of the creative world. Artists, writers and musicians converged there, the beating heart of modernist bohemia. It was a milieu defined by hedonism, rebellion and unapologetic sexual candour, fuelled by the energy of innovation and, no doubt, litres of vin rouge.

Into this world stepped Lee Miller, American beauty and former Vogue model, and in a moment, the life and art of the surrealist photographer, Man Ray, was changed for ever.

Because of her influence over his work, Miller is remembered most commonly as Man Ray's muse, her own creative output and often groundbreaking work marginalised by comparison to the achievements of the man who adored her.

This was the fate of so many creative female minds of the last century, and Miller was no exception. The power of her beauty, and its importance to the artist who adored her, overshadowed her own art.

Indeed, Man Ray was not alone in his devotion. Famously, when Miller stepped on to the Comte de Grasse, her boat to Europe, in 1929, she was pursued by two suitors. The first waved her off in the early hours from the shore as the ship pulled off into the Atlantic, but he was outdone by his rival, who followed the boat in a twin-engine plane, releasing into her wake a trail of roses.

Miller had already conquered New York. She'd started her career as an exotic dancer and lingerie model, and had landed her big break after being discovered by Conde Nast himself after he saved her from a collision with a passing taxi. Pulling her out of harm's way, he caught sight of her sculptured features, her close cropped hair and her figure, later described as that of a Greek goddess and promptly put her on the cover of Vogue.

She became one of the most photographed women of the decade, a favourite subject of Arnold Genthe and Edward Steichen.

But by the time she was 22, the role of silent object had begun to wear thin. Her ambitions had broadened. She was no longer content to be a passive component in the rapidly growing and changing art of image-making. She set off to become a photographer's apprentice. Specifically, she set off to find Man Ray.

She said of Montparnasse at that time that it was "the centre of everything. There were some terrific restaurants where you'd find James Joyce, Hemingway and all those people with their coteries around them. The interplay of ideas refreshed and stimulated everyone's work".

She came across Man Ray as he sat in a brassiere called La Bateau, which had been decorated like the inside of a ship, with winding staircase and brass fittings. He was dining with his current amoreuse, Kiki of Montparnasse, a fashionable figure at the centre of the scene, an artist, model and nightclub singer, who had appeared in many of Man Ray's early photographs and acted as muse to countless figures of modernism.

Without hesitation Miller marched up to his table. "It was intentional on my part. I was chasing him," she said. Requesting to study with him, he initially deflected her request, announcing that he was going away the next day on holiday to Biarritz. But she was not easily dissuaded. "So am I," she replied.

She began by working as an assistant and receptionist at his studio where the editor of British Vogue observed that visitors "were greeted by a vision so lovely, they would forget why they had come". Before long, the pair had embarked on an intense and destructive affair. In life and work they were partners, collaborators, lovers and later, competitors and rivals.

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky to a Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn New York, Ray had studied in New York under the legendary Alfred Stieglitz, then moved to Paris and quickly rose to the top of the cultural elite.

His group of friends and contemporaries in Paris was a who's who of the arts at the time. Among his work are portraits of Picasso, Dali, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.

One of his most famous pictures, a portrait of Lee Miller in profile, was taken in the year that the two became lovers. In Man Ray's small studio, they worked side by side, almost on top of each other. It was she, some say, not Man Ray, who deserves most of the credit for developing the innovative and groundbreaking process of solarisation, which created the daring light effects.

By the time Miller came into Man Ray's life, she was arguably already deeply emotionally damaged, and ill-equipped to bear the burden of the demands of his ego.

Miller was born into a middle-class family in the inauspicious town of Poughkeepsie, New York. Her father was a keen amateur photographer and, although this was obviously part of her initiation into the art, it also hints at a rather more unsettling dimension.

Theodore Miller began taking nude photographs of his daughter when she turned seven and continued to do so until she was a woman of 23. While she was still at school, he also persuaded some of her school friends to strip in front of his camera.

Among the archives of Lee Miller and Man Ray's life together are an unsettling series of portraits, including nudes of Miller, on which her father and her lover collaborated. Theodore was happily taking pictures as she posed languorously stretched out on a bed with two other naked women.

Perhaps it was nothing untoward, though many have speculated about the hints that all was not exactly functional in the relationship between father and daughter. The year Theodore started taking her picture, Miller admitted that she had been raped by a sailor on a holiday with family friends. She contracted gonorrhoea from the attack and had to undergo months of uncomfortable treatment. Some were suspicious that the sailor story was a cover for the fact that it was her father who passed on the infection to her.

Miller's son, Anthony Penrose, who is also author of her biography, says that he never discovered any evidence that Theodore was responsible for the assault. Nonetheless, portraits taken by Man Ray of father and daughter in Paris are revealing. As Miller perches on her father's lap, the intimacy of the pictures seems to go beyond simple affection.

In Paris, however, all was decadence and beauty. She posed for Picasso, featured in a film by Jean Cocteau and had a champagne glass designed from a moulding of her breast. Her list of lovers from that time included Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin.

Soon her relationship with Man Ray became defined by jealousy and competitiveness. "We were almost the same person when we were working," she said, while he declared that they were linked by a golden chain when walking out together. Ray, however, struggled to come to terms with her free-wheeling sexuality, and did his best to exercise a right of exclusivity over her affections.

"You must arrange to live as my wife, married or not," he wrote to her. "I cannot see you in any other way. I am going through too much trouble for the amount of dissipation of forces that goes on, and one of these days I shall simply break down. This is the last time I shall retire at your request. Love, Man."

However, it was not sexual jealousy but rather professional rivalry that, in the end, would irreparably damage their love affair.

When she started to tinker with his work, the relationship combusted, and Miller finally left him, running away to New York in 1932, after four turbulent years together. She ran away to her first marriage, with an Egyptian businessman and eventually settled in England.

Rejected, Man Ray was tipped into despair, producing a series of pieces in which he chopped up images of her body, her legs, her lips, her eye, her torso, the depth of his obsession driving him on to wider surrealism.

The end of the affair with Ray launched Miller into the most prolific and important phase of her career. Separation from her mentor did nothing to dent her ambition. She was an early pioneer among female photographers. As war broke out in Europe, she responded by changing the focus of her work from fine art to reportage, rekindling her relationship with Vogue and becoming the only female photographer embedded with troops in Europe.

In this way, she went from fashion photographer to hardened war reporter, beating a path that later conflict reporters such as Kate Adie and Marie Colvin would follow. One of the most famous pictures of Miller, by her colleague David E Scherman, was taken in Munich as the Allies advanced. She made her way to Hitler's HQ and Scherman did a haunting portrait of her in Hitler's bathtub on the day in April 1945 that he committed suicide.

If Miller was already fragile by the time she started working as a photographer, her experiences on the field served to further compound the damage. As a war photographer she witnessed some brutal sights.

She responded by turning to heavy drinking, before eventually passing away in 1977 from cancer. Her son Anthony Penrose, to whom she gave birth with the surrealist artist Roland Penrose, at the age of 40, recalls with melancholy the many drunken rages that punctuated his childhood. Her troubled psyche didn't dampen her most enduring contribution, however: that of her work.

"Lee was realistic about beauty," her son has said. "Some people say she buried it, lacerated it, drank it away. But I don't think she was troubled by the loss of it. It was her brain that worked hardest for her, with its rapid-fire, New York wit."

Man Ray, Portraits, runs at the National Portrait Gallery in London until tomorrow.

Irish Independent

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